Underground art

By MIKE MILIARD  |  April 30, 2008

And their datedness is all the more apparent now that the MBTA has spent three years — and counting — and $31 million to renovate Kenmore Station, and especially when compared with the gleaming behemoth above ground: DiMella Shaffer’s handsome bus depot, a structure that looks like the shiny spine and rib cage of some unearthed futuristic fossil. (Thankfully, the ragged plastic wrapping that hung from the thing for many months like unsightly flayed skin has finally been stripped off.)

But new is not always better. In the under-reconstruction ARLINGTON Station, for instance, the abraded walls show through with mosaic signs from the early part of the 20th century, imparting a sort of wistful nostalgia for simpler times. Meanwhile, in the AQUARIUM Station, which underwent massive renovations in 2004, its tile walls — slashed haphazardly with geometric swathes of black, dotted here and there with a soupçon of pink or blue — are not very pretty. It’s unclear whether the MBTA-hired tiler meant to emulate Mondrian, say, or Van der Leck. Either way, to these eyes, they’re garish and grating.

Much more successful are the new Silver Line stations, such as COURTHOUSE and WORLD TRADE CENTER — both, perhaps not coincidentally, stops that offer close access to the Institute of Contemporary Art. The former is a glimmering edifice of crisp and clean modernity, its walls bedecked with an orderly matrix of scintillating, distressed steel plates. The latter, with a subtle nod to its seaside location, is decorated with minimalist wave-like ripples of hole-pocked metal.

Elsewhere on the lines, the mood is ancient, not modern. In the lower level of PARK STREET, a wood-carved hand is hung above the Red Line tunnel, extending two fingers in wordless blessing — it’s as if it was plucked from some saintly statue in Reims or Notre Dame. And upstairs is a mosaic worthy of Byzantine gems like the Hagia Sophia — a detailed tableau depicting the creation of the first subway station, spangled with fossilized tools, its deep tunnels hinting at mystery.

A few blocks away, STATE Station accomplishes something more unique: communicating a certain arty élan without even meaning to. Its walls are severe, rough concrete, timeworn and austere. Its exposed brick and steel girders remind one of a place like Mass MoCA, which transformed an erstwhile industrial space into a home for modern art. Indeed, a glance at the screen in the corner, broadcasting a constant loop of grainy surveillance footage, might recall a video-installation piece by Nam June Paik or Gary Hill.

Similarly, perhaps the boldly lettered signs in the SOUTH STATION Silver Line stop — white placards emblazoned with urgent communiqués, such as DO NOT CROSS or AIRPORT BUS AT END OF PLATFORM, punctuated with a jaunty red arrow — are simply utilitarian modes of public communication. Or are they sly plays on Dadaist semiotic experiments or the works of Ed Ruscha?

Further up the Red Line, the big colleges make their presences felt. At KENDALL, the station is bedecked in panels telling the MIT story in the format of the Periodic Table. (Kendall is also home, famously, to the kinetic-sound sculpture, by which passengers on the platform can use a crank to coax tones from hammers and heavy steel beams suspended between the tracks.) At HARVARD SQUARE, meanwhile, the walls are simply splashed with a powerful crimson-hued paint.

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